But It’s a Dry Heat: California Transplant Burns with Indecision in Phoenix

by Virginia Less '80

I am a second generation Californian, and except for two years at Scripps, I have never lived more than two hours from the family homestead in Marin County. The majority of our small extended family also lives close to home. My husband comes from upstate New York, the very picturesque Finger Lakes region; when I would have the rare daydream about living somewhere else, I would imagine us settled near his hometown and family, experiencing the full range of Nature’s seasons. I certainly never, ever daydreamed about moving to Phoenix.

Although I should have seen it coming, the announcement in January 2003 that my job as a computer programmer for a large company was moving to Phoenix in May came as a shock. I have been with my company for nine years, and over the past seven years, they have opened and then expanded their Phoenix center to include most of the service and accounting personnel formerly located in San Francisco—people I worked with before and after their relocation. I knew that management also wanted the technical staff to relocate, but I thought any changes would wait for late 2003, when leases were up and certain managers retired. But there I was, faced with a two-week deadline to make this choice: move to Phoenix with a job or stay and try to find work in a severely depressed high-tech market.

So we entered the decision-making stage. My husband had not been happy at his job, so for him, leaving that was easy. If we left, we would have to rent out our home of 13 years in Petaluma (selling would likely mean never being able to buy again); property management companies led us to believe that any tenant would probably turn my garden into a moonscape. On one hand, the severance package was generous; on the other, the company would continue my current salary and cover relocation expenses. We would miss our family and friends, but Phoenix is only a two-hour flight away.

In the end, we took the sure job. We thought that it would be an adventure, exploring new surroundings.

We have been in Phoenix eight months. We arrived after a long drive in late May and have survived the third hottest summer on record and not one, not two, but three consecutive records for the latest day in October to break 100 degrees. My husband says there are two seasons here, summer and hell. To be fair, it cooled off in November, and it is actually raining right now. With only seven inches a year, the rain is a welcome sight. We are renting an apartment in a quiet, out-of-the way complex, nestled right next to South Mountain Park, an open-space preserve. Our small patio looks out onto the desert hillside, with a view of downtown Phoenix. We see quail, rabbits, and the occasional coyote, plus the less cuddly tarantulas and scorpions. The desert has its own beauty, and I’m actually looking forward to spring and the blooming cacti and wild flowers.

So, we have no complaints about the flora and fauna. It’s the basic culture of Phoenix that is the problem. This is a culture of waste. In the midst of a severe drought, homes and businesses in this desert community routinely decorate with water features. Lawns and golf courses abound. Phoenix is a metropolitan area of over five million people, the fifth largest in the nation, and growth limits seem nonexistent. Need more housing? Just bulldoze more acreage of desert. Recycling is not the norm. Shopping centers and malls are filled with the same repeated franchises. Homes and businesses all look the same, flat and beige, to blend in with the desert landscape. For someone used to the painted ladies of San Francisco, things are pretty drab. And the way people drive is frightening: running red lights, speeding, tailgating, weaving through traffic, all with a total lack of patience.

I know I need to get cracking on finding a job back in California. Until then, I’ll keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road.

Do I regret my decision? I thought I knew what we were getting into weather-wise (“oh, but it’s a dry heat”), but I did not realize how depressing and debilitating it would be to have it be over 90 degrees night after night. My brain expected there to be some relief after the sun went down, but it was minimal. My gardener’s soul is confused over these seasons—you plant in October and things go dormant or die in May? I miss something as simple as sitting at my breakfast table and looking out into the backyard.

The job I thought I said yes to, I am not doing today. After I said yes to moving, I basically was given responsibility for a different area. I had to try to become an expert by May, as the knowledge-holders chose not to come to Phoenix. And there were other challenges to face. However, of the 12 people who did not move, only three have found jobs so far. The market is still bad.

What advice can I give others faced with the same choices I had? I would say that if you decide to move for a job, have a plan to return in reserve. I am not doing very much to search for a job in California because I am bogged down with my current job and unhappy with being here. It’s a vicious circle. If I were happier, I would be in a better place to look for a new job, but if I were happier, maybe I would want to stick around—but it would still be Phoenix.